Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My 'Being There' moment

I finished reading Jerzy Kosinksi's 1970 novel Being There a few days ago. Like the movie of the same name that starred Peter Sellers, the book tells the story of Chance, a man who has spent his entire life in the same house and the garden of a very wealthy man. All he knows about the world is what he has seen on television, which he watches whenever he is not working in the garden. There is a hint that Chance may be the illegitimate son of the Old Man, who has kept him hidden away for decades.

When the Old Man dies, Chance is forced to leave the house. Dressed in one of the Old Man's discarded suits, he enters the outside world for the first time. Within a matter of hours, because of how well he looks in that suit, he is given a new name, Chauncey Gardiner, and a new identity, that of a successful businessman. The president of the United States, among others, comes to him for advice. He is interviewed on television. He may be an idiot, but his comments about the garden he knows so well are taken as great wisdom.

This brief novel reads like a fable or as a metaphor for modern times, or whatever. Surely in real life someone with such low intelligence could not fool so many people for so long. My own experience tells me otherwise. In my life I have known both a county official and a newspaper publisher whose IQs could not have been higher than Chance's.

The official inherited his office from his father, a long-time public servant who always won re-election handily. Because he had the same last name, the son also won his first election easily. His father had put together an excellent staff, who ran the office well even with a fool for a boss. In time, however, efficiency  deteriorated and enough voters met the son or heard him speak that he was voted out of office.

Family ties may have also been responsible for the publisher's rise in the newspaper business. Also, he looked uncommonly fine in a suit. As long as he kept his mouth shut, he certainly looked the part of a newspaper publisher. Those of us who worked for him, however, knew he didn't have a clue about running a newspaper. One day he did something so stupid, not to mention unethical, that even his corporate bosses had to recognize him for what he was, and he was fired.

My own "Being There" moment came when I was in college. I belonged to a group that often met informally at noon. One day there was a hot discussion about something, but I was daydreaming and not paying a bit of attention to what was being discussed. I was suddenly snapped out of my dreams when I heard someone say, "Terry, what do you think?"

I recognized there was no choice but to admit I had not been following the discussion, but what I said was, "What's the problem?" There was a long pause, then someone said, "You know, Terry's right. Until we really understand the problem, we won't be able to find a solution." From there the discussion took off again, but I never could figure out what they were talking about. I certainly didn't have the nerve to ask a second time for an explanation. I may, on at least that occasion, have been no brighter than Chance, that county official or my well-dressed publisher, but I left the meeting that day treated as if I possessed the wisdom of Solomon.

Most people, I suspect, are willing to think the best of others, especially if they come from prominent families or look good in a suit. In my case, it must have been my glasses. People wearing glasses really do give the appearance of being smarter than they really are.

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